Molasses has always been part of Newfoundland’s history. Ever since we were a port of call for the English as they were trading in British West Indies, Newfoundland has had their fingers in molasses.
Molasses found it’s way in many homes and recipes. Today you can find it in ‘lassy buns, pandowdy, and christmas pudding. It’s also just used as a condiment in place of syrup. It’s great for dipping your toutons or pouring over pancakes. I used to make a sandwich of butter and molasses. One slice of bread would get buttered while the other would get molasses. It was a great snack after school when you couldn’t wait the two hours for dinner. Molasses also comes in different forms: fancy, cooking, and blackstrap. The most common for cooking is fancy and blackstrap.
Fancy molasses is the pure juice of the sugar cane, condensed, inverted and purified. It is 100% natural and contains no additives or preservatives. It is a bit lighter in colour than the other molasses products, and the flavour is tangy sweet. Blackstrap Molasses is the highly-concentrated, final by-product of the refined sugar manufacturing process. As the sugar crystallizes, the residual cane juice thickens into a dark mass and is separated out through a centrifuge. The resulting molasses is very dark with a robust, somewhat bitter flavour. Like the fancy molasses, it is a pure product and contains no added sulphates or sulphites.
Molasses was big business in trade for Britain. The colonial molasses trade occurred throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the British colonies of the Americas. Molasses was a major trading product. It would shipped in large wooden barrels along with the rum and dried fish. Back in the days of the general store, you could just go in a have them place a tap on the barrel and then pour out the amount you needed. The ultimate in bulk shopping.
Molasses was produced in sugar plantations in the Caribbean (also called the West Indies), in islands controlled by England (e.g., Jamaica and Barbados), Spain (e.g., Santo Domingo), and France (e.g., Martinique). The English colonies along the Atlantic (mainly the Thirteen Colonies) purchased molasses and used it to produce rum, primarily in distilleries in New England. St. John’s, Newfoundland, was a port of call to and from England for supplies, so it would be natural for Newfoundlanders to sample the wares being shipped back to the motherland.
Newfoundland has its fair share of fish. John Cabot has supposed said that he could walk on the waters in Newfoundland because it was so thick with cod. For the better part of the last two hundred years, Newfoundlanders used to have cod as their main fish protein. Cod was caught, filleted, salted, and dried. This dried fish was sent to England and south to Jamaica. In return Newfoundland got molasses and rum. This is why Jamaica has plenty of salt fish in their diets and Newfoundlanders have molasses in theirs.
Then came the Molasses Act. The Molasses Act of March 1733 was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain (citation 6 Geo II. c. 13), which imposed a tax of six pence per gallon on imports of molasses from non-English colonies. Parliament created the act largely at the insistence of large plantation owners in the British West Indies. The Act was not passed for the purpose of raising revenue, but rather to regulate trade by making British products cheaper than those from the French West Indies. The Molasses Act greatly affected the significant colonial molasses trade. Molasses from the British West Indies, used in New England for making rum, was priced much higher than its competitors and they also had no need for the large quantities of lumber, fish, and other items offered by the colonies in exchange. The British West Indies in the first part of the 18th Century were the most important trading partner for Great Britain so Parliament was attentive to their requests. However, rather than acceding to the demands to prohibit the colonies from trading with the non-British islands, Parliament passed the prohibitively high tax on the colonies for the import of molasses from these islands.
Largely opposed by colonists, the tax was rarely paid, and smuggling to avoid it was prominent. If actually collected, the tax would have effectively closed that source to New England and destroyed much of the rum industry. Yet smuggling, bribery or intimidation of customs officials effectively nullified the law. The growing corruption of local officials and disrespect for British Law caused by this act and others like it eventually led to the American Revolution in 1776. This Act was replaced by the Sugar Act in 1764. This Act halved the tax rate, but was accompanied by British intent to actually collect the tax this time.
Who knew that the love of molasses (as well as fish and rum) would be part of the American Revolution? Needless to say, our love of sugar hasn’t stopped and molasses has become one of the staples in the Newfoundland kitchen.